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    By Lynnell Edwards
    Photo by Terrence Humphrey

    “A voice for women and rural people in Kentucky and on a national level.” Sharon LaRue, executive director of the Louisville-based Kentucky Foundation for Women, used those words this fall while introducing Judi Jennings as the recipient of KFW’s 2017 Sallie Bingham Award. 

    The award, named after the organization’s founder, has been given annually since 1996 to women who advocate for feminist expression in art. Jennings’ legacy includes 16 years as KFW’s executive director, four years working for the Kentucky Humanities Council and, since 2008, serving as director of the Special Project, a program encouraging the children of inmates at the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections to make art while they wait, sometimes hours, for visitations. 

    As an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky in her hometown of Lexington, Jennings and others were harassed for wearing black armbands while mourning the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. She was a graduate student at UK in 1970 when the ROTC building was burned down in the wake of the deadly Kent State University shootings of unarmed students protesting the Vietnam War. Jennings immersed herself in the women’s movement, engaging with what she calls “consciousness-raising groups.” In her Bingham Award acceptance address, Jennings, who turned 70 in November, said, “We desperately need new visions of a better Kentucky.”

    What are your thoughts about the national climate back when you were in college and now? 

    “I came into activism in the early 1970s through the peace movement. Like many others of my generation, I thought the Vietnam War was wrong. Publicly protesting the war put me at odds with my corporately employed husband, which contributed to my divorce and led me to the women’s-consciousness-raising groups. But the groups that I went to in Lexington kept coming apart because of racial differences. In my view, white women usually did not understand why black women didn’t always trust or agree with them.

    “There was a lot of inter-generational tensions and gender tensions and racial tensions in the 1970s, but no one was walking into an elementary school and killing little kids or going into a black church and shooting everyone in a bible study group. The levels of public violence seem much greater now than in the ’70s and ’80s.”

    Does it feel like somehow our culture has taken a step backward on the path to full equality for women? 

    “I am hopeful for a better future for all of us. Women are part of that ‘all of us.’ Sometimes we are focusing on gender rights, and sometimes racial rights and sometimes economics, but it has to be better for all of us and not just one identity group or it isn’t going to work. 

    “Statewide, we need to look at why less than 35 percent of Kentuckians voted in the 2015 governor’s election. What will it take to get these women and men, especially young people, believing enough in our civic structure to be active participants? Nationally, why did so many white women vote for Trump given his sexually predatory statements? How can we understand that and then what do we do?”

    In January, you attended the rally in Louisville on the day of the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C. What was that like?

    “The event was multi-racial, multi-gender and family-friendly. But I’m questioning the politics of outrage. I’m stressing rebuilding rather than resisting or other actions that play into division and anger. What we need now is trust.”

    In your unpublished memoir, you write, “Living in London helped me understand how important it is to me to be a Kentuckian.” Can you explain that?

    “Most of the English don’t usually care if you are from Louisville or Lexington or a rural area. It is all the same to them: You are still from Kentucky. That made me realize how counterproductive it is for Kentuckians to go around putting down other Kentuckians, because the sum of doing that is that a lot of people outside Kentucky, especially internationally, think everyone here is substandard because someone from Kentucky told them so. I continue to be amazed at why some Kentuckians employ the same stereotypes about Kentucky that people elsewhere do.

    “We’re much more alike than we are different. People accept media stereotypes and they don’t think about the fact that rural youth support gay rights, for instance. Rural people get blamed for everything that people see is wrong with the state. We could learn a lot from rural people about family ways of being in community, like watching out for your neighbors.” 

    In your co-edited collection on the work of Appalachian activist Helen Matthews Lewis, the opening chapter is titled “The Making of an Unruly Woman.” Who are the unruly women you see now doing good work in Louisville, in Kentucky? 

    “My definition of unruly is more about depth of impact than on what might be considered unruly behavior. So I would say State Reps. Attica Scott, Joni Jenkins and Mary Lou Marzian, who conduct themselves with dignity and continue to work for justice and equality. I would say Ambassador Attallah Shabazz (Malcolm X’s oldest daughter), who has done so much more for Louisville than Louisville has done for her, but she keeps on doing it. I would say Kentucky poet Bianca Spriggs, who has left our state but I hope only temporarily. She has written and performed about Kentucky’s legacy of racial violence against black women and girls.” 

    I understand you’re turning your attention back now to some of your early academic interests. 

    “I want to get back to my 18th-century British history research. I want to make a research trip to Jamaica to look at the will of the mother of a bi-racial woman artist who moved to England and became a Quaker. The daughter wanted her mother, who was a free woman of color in Kingston, to free the enslaved people she owned.”

    This originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

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